#1956Club: Children’s Books

Alf Prøysen: Little Old Mrs Pepperpot

The first Mrs Pepperpot story appeared in 1956 in Norway, so I am using that date, rather than the 1959 date for its first English translation. Sadly, my 1984 Red Fox edition does not name the translator and only credits Hutchinson (publisher) for the 1959 translation.

This was one of the books that our teacher would read out loud in class while we were doing Arts and Crafts (others included Pippi Longstocking, the Moomins, Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga). I loved stories and hated being crafty, so unsurprisingly, I have fonder memories of the books than of the messy, glue-stricken ‘masterpieces’ I created. The Scandinavian book choices might seem surprising for a school that was so resolutely, old-fashionedly English, especially since all of them have a slightly anarchic tendency. Pippi is anti-school and anti-grown-ups, the Moomins and their friends often rush off and do strange things, while Mrs Pepperpot… Well, she seems to take the sudden shrinking to the size of a salt-and-pepper shaker in her stride, but she often does eccentric or even naughty things when she is that size. See for instance the chaos that ensues when she goes to the school bazaar – although you could argue that the snobbish smart ladies organising the bazaar deserve their come-uppance.

This first volume contains only five Mrs Pepperpot stories, while the remaining seven are more general, very short and often quite funny stories. Those too tend to subvert the given order: Mr Puffblow’s hat is blown away and becomes a boat for field mice; a fancy new doll longs to escape from the display case and get rough and dirty; little mice make their appearance in houses and wreak havoc.

However, I have to admit that, though charming, I did find the stories rather slight upon rereading. I think this is a book best enjoyed with 4-6 year olds.

Ian Serraillier: The Silver Sword

Another book from my schooldays – this one and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr were the two mainstays of English children’s literature about the Second World War, but The Silver Sword appeared first. This book achieves that rare feat of depicting (then recent) history in such a way that children will both enjoy but also remember. It’s an adventure tale, as the three parentless children from the Warsaw ghetto set off across Europe as the war draws to an end, in an effort to rejoin their father, whom they believe to be in Switzerland. But it is also a story of friendship, sibling loyalty, courage and human kindness triumphing in the face of adversity.

Although many of the scenes are based upon factual research and period documents, the story is a bit too sanitised. I suppose it is intended for a young audience, but the idea of the soldiers in the Soviet army being all helpful and not at all observant of the fact that the oldest child is seventeen and a pretty girl… just doesn’t seem quite plausible. At least, not according to the stories my grandmother and great-aunts told me. And pretty much everyone they meet along the way is just so darn helpful. Even if this is after the end of the war, would deprivation have made people more or less willing to help?

However, there were some scenes that were remarkable and thoughtful: the long line of refugees and the chaos of trying to reunite families or the conversation between the children and the German farmers who provide them with shelter somewhere in Bavaria, whose sons would have been killing Poles on the front.

Once again, this didn’t quite live up to my fond memories of it, which just goes to show that perhaps childhood favourites are best left on the high shelf of nostalgia.

So these are my first two reads for the #1956Club of books published in 1956, hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I look forward to seeing what the others have found and reviewed. My next review will be of one of the first ‘ecological’ novels ever written, The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel) by Romain Gary. I’m about halfway through reading it now and have high hopes that it won’t disappoint me!